Between 1858 and 1861, the fields of the commune of Guadamur in the Spanish province of Toledo witnessed an exceptionally important archaeological find. The Treasure of Guarrazar, as it became known, consisted of twenty-six crowns and gold crosses dating from the seventh century CE that had been offered to the Roman Catholic church by the kings of the Visigoths (whose capital was Toledo itself, some 45 miles/81 kms south of Madrid).
Foremost among the gold of Guarrazar was King Recceswinth’s votive crown, now to be found in the National Archaeological Museum, Madrid. It is decorated with Sri Lankan blue sapphires and features hanging letters spelling out the latinised version of the king’s name: RECCESVINTHUS REX. A royal gift indeed.
It is arguable that, with the exception of Alaric I (395-410 CE) who was responsible for the sack of Rome in 410 CE, Recceswinth (653-672 CE) was the most important Visigoth king – although his father Chindaswinth might have disagreed – particularly as far as the post-Roman history of Spain is concerned. However, to substantiate that claim, and moreover to understand where the gold for these Visigoth crowns may have originally been mined, one needs to look back a few hundred years.
Roman Aqueduct of Les Ferreres, Tarragona, dating from the reign of Augustus Caesar (27 BCE – 14 CE). Source: Joanlm - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia Commons.
The Rulers of Iberia
The Visigoths, originally a Germanic people, first made themselves felt as a cogent group to the Romans in 378 CE at a battle in what is now European Turkey, where they were victorious against troops led by the eastern Roman Emperor Valens, who died on the field.
Over the succeeding decades, the Visigoths moved west and became, for a time, a significant presence in southern France, ruling from their capital Toulouse and founding cities such as Carcassonne. It was, however, in Spain where their impact was longest lasting, following their takeover of most of the country as the western Roman empire finally collapsed in 476 CE. It was still the Romans we almost certainly have to thank for the Visigoth gold.
The Romans’ first incursions into the Iberian peninsula took place in the early 200s BCE. At that time, the Mediterranean coast of Spain, south from Barcelona, became a training and battle ground for the Roman army seeking to block the military and territorial ambitions of, among others, the Iberians, Lusitanians and, most familiarly, the Carthaginians under Hannibal (who was only finally defeated in Tunisia in 202 BCE, having for some years terrorised Roman Italy).
The Iberian Peninsula was only finally ‘civilised’ (as the Romans would have seen it) by Augustus Caesar, who completed the conquest in 19 BCE. Thenceforward, for the next 400 years, Iberia developed into an important Roman province. Cities such as Lisbon and Tarragona (some 60 miles/96 kms southeast along the coast from Barcelona) were rapidly developed, while new ones – for example Merida, Zaragoza and Valencia – were established.
As Wikipedia tells us, “The peninsula’s economy expanded under Roman tutelage. Hispania served as a granary and a major source of metals for the Roman market, its harbours exported gold, tin, silver, lead, wool, wheat, olive oil, wine, fish, and garum [fermented fish sauce]. Agricultural production increased with the introduction of irrigation projects, some of which remain in use today.”
Total production by the 60,000 free workers involved some 5 million Roman pounds (or 1.64m kg) over the lifetime of the mines – equivalent to more than $100 billion at today’s prices.
The Largest Roman Gold Mine
As stated, part of the expanding Iberian economy was attributable to gold mining, and the most famous and most productive mines – not just in Spain but in the entire Roman empire – were to be found at Las Médulas, some 265 miles/425 kms northwest of Madrid. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The original Celtic inhabitants of Iberia had, since time immemorial, mined alluvial gold on an artisanal basis. But the Romans, as was so often the case with many of their projects, turned individual into industrial production. Today’s Las Médulas site, which was actively worked for 250 years from the middle of the first century CE, measures over 8.5 square miles/22 sq kms, and it was estimated by local official Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia (77 CE) that 20,000 Roman pounds (6,560 kg) of gold were extracted annually. This suggests, according to Wikipedia, that a total production by the 60,000 free workers involved some 5 million Roman pounds (or 1.64m kg) over the lifetime of the mines – equivalent to more than $100 billion at today’s prices.
The mining method employed by the Romans, as contemporary photographs of the Las Médulas site attest, was direct and destructive, involving pressured water arriving from seven separate aqueducts and fires to break the softened rock.
Pliny described the process as ruina montium or the ruin of the mountains, and explained at length how it operated in Book Thirty of Naturalis Historia:
“The third method of obtaining gold surpasses the labours of the Giants even: by the aid of galleries driven to a long distance, mountains are excavated by the light of torches, the duration of which forms the set times for work, the workmen never seeing the light of day for many months together …
“When these operations are all completed, beginning at the last, they cut away the wooden pillars at the point where they support the roof: the coming downfall gives warning … The mountain, rent to pieces, is cleft asunder, hurling its debris to a distance with a crash which it is impossible for the human imagination to conceive…
“Another labour, too, quite equal to this, and one which entails even greater expense, is that of bringing rivers from the more elevated mountain heights, a distance in many instances of one hundred miles perhaps, for the purpose of washing these debris. … The fall, for instance, must be steep, that the water may be precipitated, so to say, rather than flow; and it is in this manner that it is brought from the most elevated points …
“The gold found by excavating with galleries does not require to be melted, but is pure gold at once. In these excavations, too, it is found in lumps, as also in the shafts which are sunk, sometimes exceeding ten pounds even.”
Pliny, by the way, was anything but a gold bug and strongly disapproved of all this effort. Wishing that “gold could forever be banished for ever from the earth, accursed by universal report”, he liked only one gold field, which was by the town of Babytace on the River Tigris. “Here, for the only place in all the world, is gold held in abhorrence; the people collect it together and bury it in the earth, that it may be of use to no one,” he said.
Perhaps Pliny had a point. Ice core data taken from Greenland suggest that levels of atmospheric lead pollution from the Roman works at Las Médulas and other sites were not reached again until the Industrial Revolution some 1,700 years later!
King Recceswinth – Builder of a Nation
Given that active gold production from Las Médulas had all but stopped some 350 years before Recceswinth’s time, it is very improbable that the gold in his votive crown came directly from these mines. Recycling, or production from smaller sites, is a more likely source (although how the jeweller acquired the Sri Lankan sapphires is another question). In any event, beautiful though it is, this exceptional example of the Visigoth goldsmith’s art was not Recceswinth’s crowning glory. For this, we must look to the Liber Judiciorum.
When Recceswinth, who ruled with his father until the latter’s death in 653 CE, took power, there were two classes of inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula excluding slaves: Goths and the Hispano-Romans. Each of these two groups lived under different laws – an unsatisfactory state of affairs which Recceswinth moved quickly to correct, with the promulgation of the Visigothic Legal Code. This was enshrined in the Liber Judiciorum, first published in 674 but revised in 681 CE and 693 CE during the reigns of King Erwig and his successor Egica.
Written in Latin and partially derived from Roman law, this new legal code focused on 12 key areas, which are listed by Britannica as: “Laws and legal administrators; courts; matrimony; families and inheritances; contracts; crimes and the use of torture; robbery; crime against property; the right of asylum (especially with reference to deserters from military service); the draft and division of landed estates; laws governing doctors and merchants; and laws for the punishment of heretics, public officials, and Jews [Recceswinth’s government took a relatively liberal attitude towards Jewish communities in the context of the time].”
One important consequence derived from this new legal system. This was that Recceswinth proclaimed that henceforward all inhabitants of his Iberian kingdom should be called ‘Hispani’. In so doing, he established the concept of a nation.
With the exception of a short-lived rebellion led by a Vascon noble called Froya, Recceswinth’s reign was peaceful. His new laws were effective and indeed outlasted the Visigoths to become the basis of Christian law, even during the Moorish occupation of much of Spain during the Middle Ages.
True, it took until the Reconquista, the near eight-hundred year struggle between Christians and Moors, which ended in 1492 with the fall of the Nasrid kingdom of Granada, before the Iberians could again begin to think of themselves as a single nation (a concept damaged by the secession of Portugal in 1095). But to Recceswinth and his golden crown goes the honour of taking the first steps down that long road to a separate identity.
As the Liber Judiciorum says: “We both permit and desire that the laws of foreign nations shall be studied for the sake of the useful knowledge that may be obtained from them, but we reject and prohibit their employment in the business of the courts.”
Recceswinth proclaimed that henceforward all inhabitants of his Iberian kingdom should be called ‘Hispani’ – and, in so doing, he established the concept of a nation.